Andrea Riseborough stars this month in Madonna’s latest venture, W.E., the story of King Edward VIII’s abdication following an extra-marital affair with twice divorcee Wallis Simpson. The story follows Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), a tortured, unlucky-in-love soul who finds solace in researching Simpson’s story. Riseborough’s exemplary performance as the disgraced American socialite has to boost her chances of Oscar glory in May. We thought it’d be fun to interview the film’s biggest stars, and today talk to Riseborough about her mesmerising interpretation (next week, we interview James D’arcy, who plays the King).
What intrigued you about playing Wallis Simpson?
Well, the script was the first thing that arrived to me. Madonna had seen me play Margaret Thatcher in this film called The Long Walk to Finchley . I thought it was unique in the sense that it was exploring loss in Wallis Simpson’s life but through the eyes of a future fictional character. And then Wally, the future character and Wallace the historical character have their own relationships going on. Then I was interested to meet Madonna and see what her vision for it was. I remember the first time I met her, she crept around a door and was incredibly graceful and fine-boned and very ethereal looking. She was totally ignited by her passion for the story and conveyed that to me. It became infectious, like a rash – it started catching.
How did you go about preparing for the role?
I immediately started researching Wallace, and went straight into watching the footage of her and finding out about the reasons for all the physical manifestations she went through – really where that came from and started piecing together her life from there and perhaps just capturing a little bit of her spirit. So by the time I went to meet Madonna, I had a feel for her physicality. Aesthetically perhaps I started to lean towards her – I certainly had a centre parting by that point [laughs]. I was dressed pretty matronly, too.
By the time you met her, she was already heavily into her own personal research. Did you find this daunting?
She was ten years into it, yes. I didn’t find it daunting, I found it wonderful and exciting and I wanted to get on the train. So fortunately the day we met, she responded to me the way I responded to her and we were together every day for seven months, until the film ended. It was really a fantastic experience mining what this woman’s life might have been.
She obviously did so much work in developing her understanding of what was required… How did she go about bringing her vision out in you?
The research me and Tom did only affirmed what we’d read in the script, emotionally I mean. There’s one thing to research something for ten years and to write a brilliantly unbiased historical account of something, and there’s another thing to research something and to have a certain empathy with it that leads to a piece of art. That really demands a huge emotional capacity in a person – which Madonna has in bounds.
And the role of Wallis carries a huge emotional weight…
Yes. Of course, there was the great tragedy that I think was expressed very well in the movie, and she saw the writing on the wall before it ever happened – she tried to back out of marriage. How does one person – man or woman – live up to the responsibility of a kingdom?
W.E. opens across the UK on the 20th
Words: Jack Mills